A dreary start to our December here in 2018. Pale gray skies, and a drizzle that turns into rain in earnest every now and then. It’s supposed to be sixty degrees out today. Yet wet and drippy all day. Dreich is the Scots term for days like this. Which pretty much sums it up, don’t you think? Dreich. Dree-xch (you have the gargle the last sound in the back of your throat -- "ahch") Just saying it, you feel it. Dreich.
I’m sitting here in our study looking out on the lawn where not too long ago we spent hours picking up all the leaves. But you can’t tell. It doesn’t look like it. As the next carpet of crunchy brown has fallen covering the green grass almost completely. Which means I have to do it all again. Sometime soon. If not now, before the snow falls, then in the spring when it’s time to start mowing again. The problem is that while the trees in our yard are bare, I’m looking across the street at the trees over there. And there are still millions of the little brown crunchy dudes hanging on the branches. And I know they won’t fall straight down into my neighbor’s yard, but will waft across the street into my yard. I wonder if that loving your neighbor thing applies to trees in the fall? Surely Jesus will give us a pass on grumbling about yard work. Don’t you think? No, in fact He tells us to look at the trees. Fig trees and all the trees, He says. Look at all those leaves, He says to me, you’re gonna have to pick them up. Yours and your neighbors both! Look at the trees, indeed.
But is that really why we’re called to be arborists this Advent season? Watching the leaves fall, being at the ready like Ed Crankshaft come to life from the comic pages, ready to pounce on the single leaf that would dare to litter our lawns? Or does He have something else in mind?
Luke 21:25-36 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." 29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
I’m not sure how you receive this sort of thing on the First Sunday of Advent. Sometimes, I think that folks are expecting to hear the preliminaries of the Christmas story. Maybe an angel announcement, maybe a song of transformation, maybe a dream or a journey or a royal decree. But certainly not people fainting with fear and foreboding. I’m not sure I’m up to foreboding. We just don’t forebode any more. Do we?
Heck, we’ve got movies about the end of the world that are pretty impressive in their special effects. And we go to see that for entertainment. So, if Jesus is trying to scare us, He’d better start doing a better job of it.
But then, a second look at those verses imply something different. Maybe it isn’t fear that Jesus is trying to instill. Maybe it is something altogether different. Maybe it is the opposite. And what is the opposite of fear? Hope. Look at the trees, He says. Look for signs of growth even in a dying season. Look for signs of life even in a dreary landscape. “Stand up and raise your heads” He says to us. When it is our natural instinct that when things are going badly, when it is a difficult moment, we want to keep our heads down. But Jesus tells us to raise our heads. To look up. To trust, to have confidence. To pay attention.
Oh, that’s a tricky one at any time of the year, but with all the distractions of the holidays it is even more difficult. Pay attention, He says. But I’ve all these things to accomplish. I’ve got my lists to fulfill. Places to go and things to do. Pay attention, He says. But to what? To the end times? No thanks, the folks all wrapped up in that kind of thing seem a little bit ... odd. A little bit out of touch. And frankly seem to have their priorities all messed up. If the message is take care of yourself, stay clean so that you come out well in the end, I’m not really that interested.
Pay attention, He says. Advent is a multi-layered time. There is the remembrance and the desire to recapture the birth of that baby again. We really want to hear that angel song and believe that if even for a moment, Peace on Earth is within the realm of possibility. We look back to what has been done for us. But at the same time the scriptures remind us that there is still a coming on our horizon. We do look for the coming of the Kingdom, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hook, when we will study war no more. There is a Someday out there toward which we lean and for which we hope. Advent is a looking forward as well as a looking back.
Pay attention, He says. Look at the trees, He says. What if there is one more layer? One more direction, in addition to back and forward. What if there is an around. Look around. Look up, look down, or just look. “Be on guard so that your hearts aren’t weighed down...” So that you don’t miss it. So that you don’t miss Him. That’s the amazing thing about this season, there glimpses of the Kingdom that appear when you least expect it. There are sightings of the Savior in the twinkling of the eyes, in the hesitant thank yous and the gasps of wonder. In the late night conversations of scattered family members trying to figure out what might be next, there are prayers of hope and of love, an embrace of peace that brings tears to our eyes. If we pay attention.
Jeremiah says it simply. Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
For a branch. No, a Branch. Not just any branch. Not the branches that fall with the leaves that cover the lawn. The branches from a tree too old to sustain all of them any more, not those dead things. The branches higher up are still growing, still producing, still reaching for a heaven only trees know how to hope for. It’s not the dead branch of the past we cling to, we hope in. It is the new growth. God will cause - will cause - a Branch to spring up. There is more to come, more hope to be revealed, more justice to be executed, more righteousness to cover the land. Like leaves on the lawn.
Yeah, when you pay attention you see a mess you need to clean up, and that can be tiring. But you also see life, dying and rising life, enough to give you hope in a dreary season. Blessed Advent to you.